Today, public engagement is mostly regarded as a commodity. If there is good level of funding available, scientists may consider spending money in what they usually call ”public relations”. Otherwise this is the first thing scientists cut because they consider it to be the least necessary.
But public engagement in science is very much needed. At the very least because the public is either an enemy or an ally of research. Examples such as the climate change denial illustrate this point well. In other circumstances, such as the 2009 Shuttle mission, it was people who wanted such mission to happen in order to service the Hubble Space Telescope for the last time even thought it had been declared doomed by US President George W. Bush and NASA President Sean O’Keefe. An unprecedented movement of popular opinion grew to such a large extent that the official decision had to be changed and money reallocated.
To adequately communicate research to a lay audience, it is necessary to adopt the audience’s language and appeal to its own interests. Just like what is done in marketing. Therefore it is not a heresy to mix scientific content with languages that are either non-scientific or even non-verbal, including, for example, by communication through the means of theatre, dance, video-games, comics or music …
This is all part of an approach I dubbed “A marketing strategy for the survival of fundamental science“. Such an approach is critical in order to build a society that is both aware and appreciative of science. A conscious society is the only one able to properly assess how crucial investments in science have to be in the European budget. Or how future prosperity depends on new ideas and how these have to be explored by young and passionate minds.
For example, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particle accelerator is teaching scientists important lessons about the Higgs Boson, among others. However, some have argued that the money this experiment costs should rather be spent on finding ways to cure tumours. However it is precisely the capacity we acquired by walking down the road of curiosity for the invisible and the minuscule that contributed to finding solutions to cure cancer. Indeed, the LHC smashes particles called hadrons. They are the very same particles used in hadron-therapy, a medical technique that can treat deep cancers in an efficient way.
Many more of these beautiful and deeply meaningful connections have yet to be unveiled to the largest public. Once the level of public engagement progresses, the public will slowly see reduce its disconnect with science and scientists. Instead, the public will start further engaging in a durable and satisfying conversation with these scientists.